Cannu — the Silkworm Girl


Caroline Young, artwork and text

Sichuan was the historical seat of ancient China’s silkworm and silk industry.

Having no central government, the diverse tribes would battle among themselves over disputes and there were constant skirmishes. In this region lived a beautiful girl of marriageable age.

Her father had gone off to battle and had not returned for over a year. Being very close to her father, the girl pined for him and eventually became gravely ill.

Her mother, alarmed that she would lose her daughter as well, declared that any young man who brought her husband home could have their daughter’s hand in marriage.

Many young men tried, yet all were unsuccessful. Then one day, the father’s horse, which had been stolen, pulled free of his ropes and galloped off. In two days, he mysteriously returned with the father on his back. When people heard of this, they all agreed that the horse possessed a soul. As a reward, the father gave him extra food and treats. Amazingly, the animal refused everything. Each time the girl walked past, he would rear his head and whinny. Confused as to what was happening, the father asked his daughter what was going on. When told of his wife’s promise, he flew into a rage.

“What man would allow his daughter to be betrothed to a beast?!”

On hearing these angry words, the horse began to kick and bellow. Outraged, the father killed him, and buried him beneath a mulberry tree.

A few days later, the girl was walking near the tree. The spirit of the horse rose up from its grave, enveloped the girl, and whisked her off into the sky. For ten days, the father searched in vain for his daughter. Then one day, he saw something growing on the mulberry tree. On closer inspection, he found it was a silken cocoon, and inside it was his daughter, who had changed into a silkworm. From that day onwards, people reported seeing the girl and horse galloping across the land. She would stop and teach people how to raise silkworms and grow mulberry trees, on whose leaves the silkworms fed. When asked, she said,

“The gods have conferred this task upon me, so I may never forget what it is to be just and honor a promise.”

She came to be known as Cannu, the Silkworm Girl.

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As an adopted child of Chinese-American expatriates, I have always been intrigued by how the Chinese culture explained the mysteries of the universe.